Vernacular Declensionism

27 October 2016



When I was an adolescent I was quite taken with what was known at the time as “survivalism.” With the little money that I had a bought a copy of Life After Doomsday by Bruce Clayton, I subscribed to Survive magazine (at the same time I was reading Soldier of Fortune magazine), and my favorite science fiction novels were those that dealt with the end of the world. There is an entire sub-genre of science fiction that dwells on the end of the world — some of it concerns itself with the actual process of societal collapse, some considers the short term consequences of societal collapse, and some considers the far future consequences. The most famous novel in this genre is also perhaps the most famous novel in science fiction — Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz — which lingers over a post apocalyptic future at three distinct six hundred year intervals. My interest in the end of the world also led to my studying civil defense and eventually nuclear strategy, which fascinated me. This autodidactic process eventually led me to high culture sources of declension narratives, and hence to an intellectual engagement that ceased to be related to survivalism.

My Cold War childhood provided ample scope for my secular apocalyticism, but in reading about survivalism it was not long before I discovered that, ideologically, the survivalist movement was far to the right, though with some exceptions. There is was a bit of overlap between the counter-culture back-to-the-land movement, which was typically on the political left, and the survivalists, who were typically on the right. Both camps read the Foxfire books and imagined themselves returning to a simpler, and more self-sufficient life — an obvious response to the alienation produced by industrialized society and exponential urban growth. The exponential urban growth that especially blossomed in Europe and North America following the Second World War, and which effectively led to the depopulation of the rural countryside, continues in our time (cf. The Rural-Urban Divide). One of the most significant global demographic trends has been, is, and will continue to be the movement of rural populations into increasingly large megacities. This process means that the communities of the rural countryside are dismantled, while new communities are created in urban contexts, but the transition is by no means smooth, and some weather the change better than others.

Several changes occurred at or around the middle of the twentieth century that severally contributed to the rise of declension narratives: the exponential growth in urbanism mentioned above, atomic weapons and the Cold War, the dissolution of extended families, the Pill, and so on. Before this time, narratives of the future were largely expansionist and optimistic. During the Golden Age of science fiction, uncomplicated heroes traveled from planet to planet in a quixotic quest to right wrongs and to rescue damsels in distress. Now this seems very innocent, if not naïve, and we now prefer anti-heroes to heroes, as we identify more with their tortured struggles than with the uncomplicated heroes and their happily-ever-after.

Thus while our cities are larger than ever before in the history of civilization, and they are growing larger by the day, civilization is more integrated around the planet than ever before, and becoming more tightly integrated all the time (even as politicians today flee from the label of “globalization” because they know it is, at the moment, politically radioactive), and civilization is more robust than ever, with higher levels of redundancy in essential infrastructure and services than ever before, as well as possessing long-term, large-scale disaster planning and preparation, we are more pessimistic than ever before about the prospects of this vigorous civilization. Perhaps this is simply because it is not the civilization we expected to have.

In the social atmosphere of Cold War tension and the omnipresent threat of nuclear annihilation, which could materialize at any moment out of the clear blue sky, those initially disaffected by the emerging character of modern urbanized life sought to opt out, and this process of opting out of the emerging social order was often given intellectual justification in terms of a Weltanschauung of decline, which I call declension historiography. Declensionism varies in scope, from mainstream media columnists bemoaning the declining stature of the US in a multipolar world, to disaster preparedness, to societal collapse, to awareness of global catastrophic risk and existential risk, to a metaphysical doctrine of universal, inevitable, and unavoidable decline (which is today often expressed in scientific terms by reference to the second law of thermodynamics). Doomsday preparedness, then, comes in all varieties, from those hoping to survive “the big one,” where “the big one” is a massive earthquake, hurricane, or even an ephemeral political revolution, to those gearing up for the collapse of civilization and living in a world where there is no more electricity, no hospitals, schools, governments, or indeed any social institutions at all beyond the individual survivalist and his intimate circle.

The prehistory of doomsday preppers also included those preparing for a variety of different environmental, social, and political ills. Hippies founded communes and used their agricultural skills to grow better dope. Several apocalyptic churches have predicted the end of the world, and some explicitly urged members to build fallout shelters in order to survive nuclear war (such as the Church Universal and Triumphant). The communitarians on the right have often chosen to opt out of mainstream society under the umbrella of one of these apocalyptic churches, while the rugged individualists on the right became survivalists and they prepared to meet an apocalyptic future on their own terms, but, again, often justified in terms of a much larger conception of history. This declension narrative has become pervasive in contemporary society. While the end of the Cold War has meant the decline in the risk of nuclear war, the political left now favors scenarios of environmental collapse, while the political right favors scenarios of institutional collapse due to bank failure, currency collapse, the welfare state, or the decline of traditional social institutions (such as the church and the family).

The terms “suvivalist” and “survivalism” are not used as widely today, but the same phenomenon is now known in terms of “preppers,” short for “doomsday preppers,” which indicates those who actively plan and prepare for apocalyptic scenarios. The political division and overlap is still evident. The left, focusing on environmental collapse, continues to look toward the “small is beautiful” ideal of the early environmental movement, inherited from the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth study; they focus on community and sustainable organic farming and tend not to stress the necessarily violent social transition that would occur if the most shrill predictions of “peak oil” came to pass, and industrialized civilization ground to a halt (this sort of scenario approaches mainstream respectability in some popular books such as $20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better, which I discussed in Are Happy Days Here Again?). These left-of-center declensionists are rarely called “preppers,” but their activities overlap with those usually called preppers.

The right, in contrast, does focus on the presumptively violent transitional period of social collapse, fetishizing armed resistance to marauding hordes, who will stream by the millions from overcrowded cities when the electricity stops and trucks stop bringing in food. While details are usually absent, the generic social collapse scenario has come to be called “SHTF,” which is an acronym for “shit hits the fan,” as in, “when the shit hits the fan, if you aren’t prepared, things are going to go badly for you.” Right-of-center declensionists, like the left, have an overarching vision of the collapse of civilization (as strange as that may sound), but drawing on different ideas and different causes than the left.

What are these declensionist ideas and the presumed causes of declension? Where does vernacular declensionism get its ideas? Why is declensionism so prevalent today? I have touched upon this issue previously, especially in Fear of the Future, where I made an argument specific to the nature of industrialized society and the reaction against it:

“…apocalyptic visions graphically illustrate the overthrow of the industrial city and the order over which it presided… While such images are threatening, they are also liberating. The end of the industrial city and of industrial civilization means the end of wage slavery, the end of the clocks and calendars that control our lives, and the end of lives so radically ordered and densely scheduled that they have ceased to resemble life and appear more like the pathetic delusions of the insane.”

This explains the motivation for entertaining declensionist ideas, but it does not explain the sources of these ideas. But in the same post I also cited a number of science fiction films that have prominently depicted apocalyptic visions. It is difficult to name a science fiction film that is not dystopian and apocalyptic, and these films have had a great impact on popular culture. Even those unsympathetic to the prepper mindset effortlessly recognize the familiar tropes of societal collapse portrayed in film. Presumably the writers of these films derive their declensionist ideas from a mixture of vernacular, social media, mass media, and high culture declensionism, as these ideas have percolated through society.

The mass media rarely recognizes preppers (although I see that there is a television program, Doomsday Preppers), and when it does do, it does so in a spirit of condescension. The greatest friends of civilization today are those who never think about it and take for granted all of the comforts and advantages of civilization. For most of them, the end of civilization is simply unimaginable, and it is this perspective that is operative when the occasional article on preppers appears in the mass media, where it is presented with a mixture of bemused pity and incredulity. The target audience for these stories are precisely the people that preppers believe will not last very long when the shit hits the fan. I could easily write a separate blog post (or an entire book) about the relationship of the mass mainstream media to declension scenarios, but this is a distinct topic from that of vernacular declensionism. There is some overlap between mass media and social media, as every mainstream media outlet also has a social media presence, and the occasional social media post will “go viral” and be picked up by the mainstream media. In this way, some survivalist ideas find a wider audience than the core audience, already familiar with the message, and this can draw in the curious, who may eventually become converts to the message. Other than this, the contribution by mass media to declension historiography is very limited (except for supplying a steady stream of inflammatory news articles that are pointed out as sure signs that the end is near).

Social media is vast and amorphous, but is given shape by each and every one of us as we pick and choose the social media we consume. This filtering effect means that like-minded individuals share a common ideological space in social media, and they overlap very little with those of divergent ideologies. The prepper community is well represented in social media, which has taken over from the small private presses that formerly distributed survivalist literature to the small survivalist community. The social media presence of preppers is all over the map, with an array of diverse social collapse scenarios, but, like survivalists of the 70s and 80s, still primarily on the political right, and often inspired by Biblical visions of apocalypse. In 72 Items That Will Disappear First When The SHTF, preppers are urged to buy boxes of Bibles: “Bibles will be in demand and can be used to barter items. A box of 100 small Bibles cost about $20.” Perhaps the writer of this article has watched The Book of Eli too many times and imagines that the Bible may be hard to come by in post-apocalyptic America. It would be extraordinarily difficult for the Bible to become a rarity — as difficult as it would be for human beings to go extinct. Both are too widely distributed to be eradicated by anything short of terrestrial sterilization. If you want trade goods, you would be much better off stocking up on books that will be rare than books that will be common, but this doesn’t stoke the prepper narrative, so the logic of commerce gives way to the ideology of social cohesion through embattled belief.

High culture declensionism, as to be found, for example, in Oswald Spengler’s classic The Decline of the West (Der Untergang des Abendlandes), is scholarly, if not pedantic, and is essentially an exercise in the philosophy of history. (Interestingly, the most famous representatives of the Beat Generation, who foreshadowed the hippies’ back-to-the-land rejectionism of industrialized society, were avid readers of Spengler; cf. Sharin N. Elkholy, The Philosophy of the Beats, University Press of Kentucky, 2012, p. 208.) Spengler employs the old standby of a cyclical conception of history, and despite the intellectual and cultural distance we can come since cyclical history was the norm, vernacular cyclical history continues to be an influence. Vernacular cyclical history can appeal to intuitions about the life cycle of all things, and it is easy to conceive of civilization as participating in this coming to be and passing away of everything sublunary.

Saint Augustine, the father of the philosophy of history, may be cited as another high culture representative of declensionism, living as he did as the Roman world was unraveling. The sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 AD was the occasion of Saint Augustine writing his magnum opus, The City of God (De Civitate Dei). Rome had been a city untouched by any invading army for more than eight hundred years, and had functioned as the capital of the known world, and yet it had been laid low by unsophisticated barbarians. How was this to be explained? This is the task Augustine set himself, and Augustine had an answer. The ruination of the City of Man was, for Augustine, a mere detail of history, of no great importance, as long as the City of God was thriving, as he believed it to be. Indeed, the City of God would go on to thrive for more than a thousand years after Augustine as western Europe attempted to make itself over as the Earthly image of the City of God.

Augustine represents a sharp break with cyclical history. Throughout the City of God Augustine is explicit in his rejection of cyclical history, arguing against it both as a theory of history as well as due to its heterodox consequences. Thus while we can construe Augustine as a representative of declension history, it is a linear declension history. Augustine’s vision of linear declension history was remarkably influential during the European middle ages, when the few educated members of society did not perceive any break in history from classical antiquity to medievalism. For them, they were still Romans, but degraded Romans, very late in the history of Rome. The miserable condition of life of the middle ages was to be put to having come at the tail end of history, waiting for the world to well and truly end.

Vernacular declension, with its intuitive retention of cyclical history, resides awkwardly side-by-side with the Whig historiography and progressivism (ultimately derived from Augustine’s linear conception of history) that is so common in the modern world — the idea that we are modern, and therefore different from the people of the past and their world, is axiomatic and unquestioned. Human periodization of time is as natural as the categories of folk biology — our modernism, then, is, in part, a function of folk historiography (on folk concepts cf. Folk Concepts and Scientific Progress and Folk Concepts of Scientific Civilization). What are the categories of folk historiography, what kind of historical understanding of the world is characteristic of folk historiography? This will have to be an inquiry for another time.

I will conclude only with the observation that vernacular declensionism might paradoxically be employed in the service of civilization, if an interest in responses to existential threats to societal stability could be used as a stepping stone to the study of and preparation for global catastrophic risks and existential risks. That is a big “if.” When I think back to my own frame of mind when I was an enthusiast of survivalism, I thought that civilization had little or nothing of interest to me, and that all the adventure that might be possible in the world would follow from the “struggle for subsistence” that Keynes took to be the “economic problem” of humanity, and which contemporary civilization has largely solved. I still have sympathy for those who find little to value in civilization, as I can remember that stage in my own development quite clearly. In a sense, I only became reconciled to civilization; I never belonged to those who never question civilization, and who can’t imagine its extirpation. Civilization was, for me, always open to question.

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